Verklärte Nacht - Arnold Schoenberg
O sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert! Es ist ein Glanz um Alles her
(See how brightly the universe shines! There is a radiance on everything)
Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is a chamber symphonic poem for string sextet originally composed in 1899. It predates Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic serial technique, for which he is more commonly known, but already in this early work we see significant chromaticism which explores the limits of western tonality. In musical terms, the transfigured night of the title is a journey from D minor to D major; a flipping of the traditional diatonic poles.
Emotionally too, through Sturm und Drang an alchemical transformation is taking place. The piece is structured around a poem by Richard Dehmel, and the five stanzas of the poem are reflected in the five sections of the music. In Dehmel’s narrative, two lovers walk through the woods. There is a confession. The woman is pregnant with another man’s child: the emotional D minor of the music. And gradually, through the twists and turns of depression, anxiety and finally elation, the situation is resolved as the man declares that in spite of being the seed of another, this child has been transformed through love into their own child: the emotional D major.
The story is fairly tame meat for a contemporary audience, but it was borderline scandalous material for a turn of the century audience. Schoenberg was to later reject Dehmel’s source as being insignificant to the work, which was also considered borderline controversial by the Vienna Music Society on account of a single “non-existent” inverted ninth chord, which prompted Schoenberg to remark "and thus (the work) cannot be performed."
As a work on the borderline, Verklärte Nacht is still significant. It looks back to the lush romantic chromaticism of Wagner and Brahms, and forward to the shattering of the vessels that would come with the full embrace of dissonance and rationality of serialism, but also forwards to the violent political storms of the century ahead. The illegitimate child of Dehmel and Schoenberg would reach its teens in time for the riot of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the consequences of this assassination. The child would rise embittered from the atrocities of the trenches, and face the decadence and collapse of the inter-war years, to witness with trepidation the rough beast that slouched towards Berlin.
Schoenberg, a Jewish Austrian composer, fled the rise of the Nazis for the United States. The Nazi persecution of Entartete Musik, or degenerate music, made the environment of mainland Europe toxic for modernist artists. Dehmel was spared this, dying from injuries sustained during the first world war, but this alchemical transformation across the musical and emotional poles carries a payload of consequences for those who were unprepared for the radience that burst from the shattered vessels; the yellow stars that would be sacrificed in holocausts at Dachau, Belsen, Auschwitz and other places.
Verklärte Nacht is a moment of promise before all of this happens. Its emotional twists and turns carry in seed, in microcosm, the storms to come. And perhaps what remains scandalous about this work is the utopian optimism that we will arrive on the peaceful shore of D major, carried by the transforming power of love.
This interpretation of Verklärte Nacht was recorded over two days in September 2018, with another two days for arrangement and mixing. It is an unorthodox arrangement of Schoenberg work in that it has been recorded entirely using electronic instruments. Two Roland romplers from the late 90s/early 00s, the Super JV and the XV 2020, and a variety of softsynths, most notably a vocaloid called AlterEgo.
The main body of 'cellos, violas and second violin are recorded with patches more or less closely related to strings. The 'cellos are actually a hybrid of 'cello and French horn boosted through an overdrive to give them a particularly mechanical quality, while the violas have been given significant stereo vibrato. Above these the second violin has a lush spray-brushed tone that more strongly resembles the string arrangements in 50-60s easy listening recordings than late romantic violin performance practice. In addition to these a xylophone section that is not part of Schoenberg's original instrumentation helps to punctuation certain rhythmic elements of the piece. This assists in bringing out parts of the composition where the difference between real strings are their synthesized counterparts might otherwise reveal a shortcoming.
More radically, the first violin has been replaced with a high male vocaloid. The extreme ranges that are played by the vocaloid are often beyond the range of the human voice, and sometimes resemble a theremin. This artificiality, as with the intentionally mechanical 'cello tones, ranges from uncanny valley through castrato and out into the truly alien. This vocaloid might be thought of as The Unborn Voice of the Century of Extremes. This cybernetic hermaphrodite soars over the score, at once sublime and slightly absurd.
Pitching a new Verklärte Nacht was more problematic than Bach's Goldberg Variations. With both the Goldbergs and Bach there are pop cultural precedents through Glenn Gould and Wendy Carlos. As far as we know there have been no synthesized interpretations of Verklärte Nacht, and certainly none that have achieved any popularity. In the early 00s, Langdon Jones, better known for his writing in New Worlds and his reconstruction work on Mervyn Peake's final Gormenghast novel, made a transcription for General MIDI.
This new 2018 interpretation was constructed using a MIDI transcription by Luis E Juan, and all of the programming, engineering and arrangement was by Zali Krishna at Polyversity Studio in Graz Austria.
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